[Written by Paul Davies]
There is a strange and porous border in film sound and that is the one that exists between music and sound design, it is not a sealed and clearly defined boundary, but an open, shifting and nebulous one, easy to cross over back and forth, sometimes inadvertently and other times boldly and deliberately, by both the composer and the sound designer.
One might ask what is the difference between music and sound design? A flippant answer would be royalties. A better answer would be at times a great deal and at others not much at all. For the most part the roles of music and sound design are clearly defined, music in film continues the role of the “pit” orchestra from the days of silent cinema, commenting, narrating and guiding the audience emotionally through the action.
Sound design mostly exists within the world created on screen, but from time to time it steps out from this perhaps “functional” role and crosses over the borderline into music, and it is this area of overlap and blurring of distinction between the two that I find increasingly interesting. The films of David Lynch and the work of his sound designer Alan Splet are good examples of this ambiguity and were an early inspiration for me, their early film “Eraserhead” in particular.
Most sound designers have a musical background, which may be a formal one or perhaps, like me, their love of sound started in manipulating electronic instruments and discovering the wonders of the recording studio. The reason I call the supposed divide between music and sound design a strange border is because it is often an arbitrary one, for example an atmospheric drone can be created by a composer and it is a music cue, similar material created by a sound designer is a sound effect.
In the past I have contributed sound design elements to films that I felt had crossed that border from sound design into scoring, I’m thinking in particular of moments in the films Love Is the Devil and Chatroom. I used to have a rule for myself that I restricted what I did to utilising un-pitched sounds – pitch and rhythm being the province of the composer. However, I have recently crossed over this border and, I must hasten to add, did so by the invitation of the filmmakers themselves.
One such film was The American, another is the most recent Lynne Ramsay film We Need to Talk about Kevin. In The American I was asked by the picture editor Andrew Hulme to supply for certain sequences in the film, “compositions” formed from what might be termed atmospheric sound design elements, that he felt would be better able to convey the tension in those scenes then perhaps “traditional” music cues would.
In Lynne’s film, because I had started work early in the film editing process, I supplied a few music/sound design pieces to Lynne and the picture editor Joe Bini to help them with the cut, a composer hadn’t been chosen at the time, and I also provided them with some further pieces from other composers and sound artists. About four of my cues found their way into the final mix and some others exist as underlying tonal elements. The score was written by Jonny Greenwood and my elements and his music seemed to combine in a unique and fortuitous way.
I’m not trying to set myself up as a film composer I don’t have the necessary skills and I have too much respect for the craft of people like Jonny Greenwood, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Adrian Johnson, Dickon Hinchliffe amongst the many composers I’ve worked with, but I think what skills I do have are suited to those occasions and those films that sometimes require sound/music elements that lie “in-between” the border of music and sound design. The “compositions” may contain little traditional musical material, but they somehow convey emotion and drama more than just a drone or atmosphere sound would do, perhaps they do this by shifting and transforming themselves through the scene, and if they do have a musical element it is a very simple one.
I realise that I can only speak for myself and my own experiences, but it’s interesting to note that one of Hans Zimmer’s collaborators Mel Wesson has for a long time provided similar elements on films such as “Inception”, “The Dark Knight”, “Michael Clayton” and many other films. Mel’s term for this is Ambient Music Design (and further information can be found at his website with the interesting caption on the main page “music is noise”). So I’m sure that I’m doing nothing new here, and I wonder how many others find themselves contributing “music” cues through sound design, whether that is acknowledged on the cue sheet or not.
In terms of technology, I love using the midi functionality of Nuendo, as well as having a liking for Mackie’s sequencer Tracktion, which features very impressive time stretch and pitch shifting capabilities, software instruments and effects from Native Instruments and Waves diamond bundle and GRM Tools for processing, I regret to say I haven’t plugged in my hardware synths and effects for some time, but keep on meaning to getting around to it.
For those who may be interested examples of music/sound design I’ve contributed to films and other bits and pieces can be found at SoundCloud